In a corner of the dining room, Ruben Gonzalez is softly keying Tres Lindas Cubanas. Little did he know in 1996, when he made his CD in Havana, his piano genius would be competing against the rising noise of our four dinner guests.
We’re sitting thousands of miles away from the Egrem recording studio on that tiny troubled island, in a small country cottage in Cumbria.
‘You really should open that wee restaurant Mark,’ says Anne, ‘This beef is tae die for.’ She’s holding a glass of wine and is slowly swirling the precious red liquid around and around.
‘On the contrary, Anne, it died for you.’
‘Do you think I care?’ Anne’s voice gets a slight edge to it. ‘Anyway, dinae give me that, you’re a veggie but you cook meat, Mark, what’s all that about?’
Anne’s one of my favourite dinner guests, she’s a Scot: small and feisty with an appetite like a Melrose rugby player, and she has a view on everything.
‘That’s a good question Annie me lassie.’ It winds her up even more when I take the piss. ‘What do you think is more important to me, your dining pleasure or a dead animal that nobody will miss?’ I pick up the bottle of Nuit-Saint-George, lean across the table and top up her glass.
‘You’re a naughty man Mark.’ John jumps in and changes the topic. ‘Did anyone hear the news about the house fire in Newcastle at the weekend?’
Anne and I nod. John fills up his own glass and continues.
‘That poor woman, but at least her husband managed to get the kids out.’
Sarah, sitting in the carver on my right obviously hadn’t seen the article.
‘What happened, couldn’t he save his wife at the same time?’
‘Apperently not, but perhaps he didn’t have time.’ Anne’s Scottish accent tends to come and go having lived in the lakes for twenty years.
‘Anyway, its gottae be the kids rescued first time, every time in that situation, surely?’
She scans the table looking for support. Anne isn’t disappointed, everyone around the table nods in agreement. The black wrought iron candelabrum is too tall for the dinner table; it obscures my view of John and Nicola. I make a mental note not to light the candles next time.
Ruben Gonzalez is persistent. The blue digital display on the CD player changes to ‘Track 4’ and the counter goes back to ‘0.00’. He plays a gentle samba, Melodia Del Rio, but he is now competing with the subject of a dead woman, burned alive in a council house in Newcastle.
‘I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t.’
‘Wouldn’t what, Mark?’ Sarah’s hands are luminescent in the candlelight.
‘I wouldn’t save the kids first.’
She stops cutting through a pink burgundy-stained shallot.
Ruben has finally got the airtime he deserves; Roberto Garcia joins him on the bongos, reinforcing the samba rhythm. Everyone else in the room is silent, looking in my direction, and taken aback judging by the horrified look I see on Anne’s face.
John’s voice drowns out Melodia Del Rio again despite Roberto’s steady rhythm that ups the Samba ante. ‘You must be joking? You’d save Nicola before you’d save any of your three’? Adding quickly, ‘With all due respect, Nicola,’
Nicola bends her head to one side and looks through the candelabrum. ‘Mark, Sarah hasn’t got a drink, can you pour her one.’
‘Yes…. to both questions.’ Although technically Nicola’s was a command, I pick up the red-wine bottle again and pour some into Sarah’s glass.
‘Why?’ The implications of my statement start to dawn on Anne. ‘But you love your kids more than life itself.’
Anne’s accent has completely disappeared now, this is most definitely a serious topic and she has clearly got a serious view on it. She makes a grab for the moral high ground, as she always does.
‘There is no way, a man would let his three children burn, drown or die in any situation, without at least trying to save them.’
‘I didn’t say I would,’ I say. ‘We are talking about making choices here. That poor man in Newcastle had to make a choice for whatever reason. My decision in the same situation, of having to choose between Nicola and the kids, would be Nicola.’
Sarah’s face, now as luminescent as her hands, leans further into the table to try to get closer to the debate.
‘I can’t believe you’ve just said that, Mark.’
‘For better or for worse, Sarah, in sickness and in health.’
‘But…but, those three beautiful kids of yours, you’d…you’d just let them die?’
These dinner debates have the opposite effect on Sarah than they do on Anne. Anne seems to find her voice and makes her stronger, but Sarah loses all control of hers, and loses the balance of the argument.
‘Sarah, although the man in Newcastle might disagree, we are talking about a hypothetical situation.’ She is still clearly shocked so I balance the debate.
‘However, given a different situation, if the choice was between saving the kids or myself, Anne’s right, I do love my kids more than life itself, my life that is. And guess what, absolutely no question about it, the kids would be the first to be lifted into the helicopter, onto the life raft, or plucked from the burning building, 101 times out of 100.’
Sarah tries to come back but can’t, so defaults to her favourite subject, movies and the rich and famous.
‘Anyway, bollocks to all that! I watched that Demi Moore movie again last night, for the fourth time.’
Ruben Gonzales is playing the closing bars to the end of his ballad. ‘Track 5’ blinks blue in the corner and Como Siento Yo fills the room.
‘You know that one where she can earn a million dollars if she sleeps with Robert Redford?’
‘Anne, would you sleep with a man you didn’t know for a million?’ I think I see a little twinkle in Sarah’s eye.
Anne, possibly distracted by thoughts of how she can invade the moral high ground again, or even thoughts of pocketing a million dollars, forks another piece of boeuf bourguignon into her mouth. She closes her eyes and her jaw moves from side to side, but she doesn’t speak.
‘I would.’ Not looking at anyone in particular.
‘You really are, a naughty naughty man, Mark.’ John says as he tops up his wine glass again. ‘Did anyone see Britain’s got Talent last night?’
‘Anne, for dessert, I’ve got that lemon tart you said you’d kill for a few months ago.’
She fakes an orgasm; When Harry met Sally style, and blows me a kiss.
‘Or, as I’ve spent all day sweating over a hot Magimix, you can also have a little choux number with fresh cream.’
‘And of course, John, you can have both!’ Sarah adds cheekily.
John can’t decide about the dessert, he certainly has a sweet tooth, and since the first time when we met ten years ago, he has gained a kilo or two. I don’t think it’s because he’s lazy, in fact as a farmer he works bloody hard; he’s just likes sweet instead of savoury, and, he’s a bit set in his ways. He’s one of those men who, when presented with a problem or a dilemma, thinks about it for a long time before he actually does anything. His main philosophy on problem solving is: whilst I’m thinking about it, the problem may just solve itself.
‘He needs a wee bomb up his arse,’ is Anne’s favourite philosophy, which reminds me of the picture on the wall above John’s head.
The picture is a framed cross-stitch that Nicola made the first year that we moved in together. We had found ‘our’ dream home, but the renovation took twice as long as I had promised. Nicola gave me the cross-stitch for our first Christmas in the new house. It reads: The trouble with doing nothing is that you never know when it’s finished, clearly a reflection of my DIY skills.
John decides he’ll have both desserts and then cheese and biscuits with ‘A nice glass of that Taylors late bottled vintage port you keep in the pantry.’
‘I didn’t get the job,’ Anne announces just as I bring in the cake. The zesty smell of tart wafts across the table.
‘What the hell!’, she says. It is only the best school in Cumbria; just give me some of that lemony heaven!’
‘What did they say; I mean did they give you reason?’ Sarah looks concerned, even angry, and arms herself with the cake-slice.
‘Usual crap, high standard of other applicants, qualifications nearer to their requirements, blah de blah de blah.’ Anne holds up her plate for the comfort food.
‘It was already decided anyway.’ She digs into a large slice of tart, her voice has a flat ‘acceptance of fate’ tone.
‘Bastards!’ Sarah is angry and waves the cake-slice too close to my head.
‘Wow…Sarah, stop before you take an eye out! I think you should know that the police have called an amnesty on kitchen utensils, particularly wooden spatulas and cake-slices.’
‘Sorry, Mark, it just makes my blood boil, it’s not what you know it’s who you know.’ She scoops up another piece of tart and puts it on her plate.
‘It’s not often we agree, but I do on this one’ Anne concedes. ‘They put me in a room before my interview, and in between clinking china and laughing, I could hear everything that was going on next door. It was someone else being interviewed, and it was pathetic.’ Anne starts to mimic a squeaky voice, ‘Joan this, Joan that, oh lovely Joan, perfect CV Joan, we’ve got your home number haven’t we, Joan? Oh, just give me your mobile too, yes, and I’ll call you tonight…’
Anne pushes the plunger in the cafetière too assertively.
‘When I went into the interview room next, it was a panel of three men and one woman. What a bitch! She did all the talking, and all the men did was look at my CV, tits, and watches for forty-five minutes. When they did talk to me everyone called me ‘Ms Jones’, and there wasn’t a cup of tea in sight.’
She offers her plate to Sarah for more cake.
‘The worst thing was, when I was leaving, ‘the bitch’ said, “we’ll write to you within ten working days”, so, as I said, the decision had already been made.’
‘But you’re still really happy in Lakes infants aren’t you?’ John tries to comfort.
‘Come on, John, are you happy really? I bet you’re like me. All you’re waiting for are six numbers to come up on the lottery?’
The aroma of fresh coffee now masks the tangy fragrance of the dessert, and Sarah drops a knobbly brown sugar lump into my cup.
‘Mark, what would be the first thing you would do if you won the lottery?’
‘Blow the candles out, sweetie.’ Nicola kicks off her stilettos and selects a bottle of Cointreau from the cocktail cabinet. She has the aura of ‘Domestic Goddess’ about her. She’s got it all; mother, full-time job, lover, and she’s the rock behind her man. She always says she’s not materialistic, but she has the BMW 3 Series sitting in the garage; in her handbag you’ll find Dolce and Gabbana, Monte Blanc and Prada. She doesn’t make a big fuss about those things; it’s just how it is with her.
In the corner of the dining room I flick through my CD’s and look for some more Latino music.
The guests have gone, the dishes are in the dishwasher and the dog is sitting under the table with her chin on her front paws. There are no titbits left from the table for her. Even the port bottle is in the recycling.
I want some easy listening to end the night with and decide on Mi Tierra, by Gloria Estefan. The tray on the CD player ejects softly and effortlessly. I carefully place Gloria into the slot and press play. Con los Años que me Quedan instantly puts me into ‘chill’ mode and I sit down at the kitchen table. I have my back to the Aga and watch Nicola through the open dining room door. She smiles at my choice of CD, and mouths the words of the title of the song in sync with Gloria.
Nicola pours me a nightcap. I inhale the peaty aroma even before I taste it. We start the usual post-mortem of the night’s events.
The standard rhetoric from Nicola, ‘I think everyone had a good time?’ .
‘Anne was right about the beef, it really does make a difference when you slow-cook it.’
She gives me a sideways look and asks a real question. ‘Mark, did you really mean what you said about saving me first before the kids?’
Gloria is coming to the end of Con los Años que me Quedan. Nicola mouths the words in sync to the song again, but this time in English. This is one of her all-time favourite songs. As she looks at me I read her lips. ‘With the years I have left.’
The dog barks at the kitchen door. Nicola doesn’t wait for my answer. ‘Put Ginny out sweetie,’ she says. ‘I’m going up.’
An elbow thumps into my ribs.
‘Sorry, was I snoring?’
‘No, listen. Can you hear a crackling noise?’
I hear a sound like dry kindling burning on an open fire.
‘Mark, can you smell smoke?’